Traveling barbecue masters shared tales of the road over cuts of beef and pork as they arrived and set up camp at the Foothills Country Fair for a professional-level barbecue competition this weekend.
The fair played host to the Tennessee State Backyard BBQ Contest, which was sponsored by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
The event taking place as part of the fair Friday and Saturday had people traveling to the Tri-State Exhibition Center from all over the country. The draw? A $15,000 first prize.
Nancy Alford, who organizes the fair with her husband, Louie, said the first local competition of this type took place at the fair last year as a way to draw more visitors.
“We’d been struggling to get it going,” Alford said. “This was a big boost.”
She added the fair’s barbecue competition has become one of the largest in the state aside from ones like those hosted in Memphis, which is known for a distinct barbecue-style, and Lynchburg, which is known for its whiskey and whiskey-spiked sauces.
When the fair hosted the Kansa City-style competition for the first time last year, Alford said organizers invested between $6,000 and $7,000 to have water and electricity lines run to the area where competitors would be setting up to prepare their smoky, saucy delights for the judges.
She said last year’s fair attendance saw an increase because of the new event and that organizers were planning to host it for years to come.
“You know we’re in it for the long haul when we put that kind of money in,” Alford said.
Fifty-five competitors registered to compete prior to the event, and registration was still taking place as late as Friday afternoon. Once they arrived, competitors parked their trailers and fired up their smokers and grills on a hill adjacent to Tri-State’s main pavilion.
While there were a small handful of competitors from western states like Oklahoma and northern ones like Pennsylvania, the majority were from southern states like Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Only one team hailed from Cleveland.
Kevin Taylor of team “Que'n Stew'n & Brew'n” out of Kennesaw, Ga. said that, while he enjoyed the food itself, his favorite part of competing was the camaraderie.
“This is a great hobby because of the people involved,” Taylor said. “We’re going to do what we can to win, but it’s like one big family.”
Many of the participants said they had competed against each other before, which has made for friendly competition among some of the teams, they said.
Still, Taylor said, competitors did take the contest seriously because of the prize money up for grabs and the fact that there was a lot of expense involved in purchasing supplies and traveling from out of state to compete.
Professional barbecue makers with varying levels of past success rounded out the list of competitors this year.
Taylor said his team had already qualified to compete in one of the World Food Championships taking place in Las Vegas this fall.
Others like Tim Hawk of team “Smoke on the Creek” from Coker Creek said they had seen successes like placing third overall in a recent competition in Maryville.
Members of team “Bleacher Bums,” the only team from Cleveland, said this was their first time taking part in a barbecue competition. The team runs a local restaurant called Stadium BBQ, and team member Keith Porter said they were competing to “put the restaurant on the map.”
Competitors had the option to prepare ribs, pork butt [meat from the shoulder], beef brisket and chicken to be judged in the competition. The majority of the competitors chose to submit entries for all four categories.
While the visiting barbecue experts had experience making a variety of styles, including Memphis-style and Carolina-style, the focus of the competition was Kansas City-style. Kansas City barbecue is known for including a variety of meats — not just pork or beef exclusively — that are often smoked and covered in thick sauces.
Some 22 competitors were also taking part in an amateur barbecue competition at the fair at the same time as the professional one. Billy Duke, an amateur competitor from Cleveland, described taking part in one of the fair’s competitions as a “tiresome ordeal” because of the busy cooking and judging schedules.
“But it’s all good,” Duke said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
The winners of the amateur and professional barbecue competitions were set to be announced after press deadline Saturday evening.